Newsletter 46

Welcome to the September 2016 issue of our occasional newsletters.


Streets of darkness

When wandering along town or city streets, you can often spot objects that are leftovers from a previous way of life, including the strange-looking ‘link extinguishers’ outside a few houses in London and elsewhere. Before gas street lighting became widespread in the early decades of the 19th century, urban streets were extremely dark. Even on moonlit nights, the moon might be darkened by clouds, while the buildings on either side would cast deep shadows. For anyone out in the streets at night, there was not just the obvious hazard of being attacked by thieves, but a constant risk of accidents through not being able to see the way.

Link extinguisher

A link extinguisher in London on an entrance pillar (left) and in a close-up view (right)

Link boys

The solution for many people was to hire a link boy – a boy or young man who carried a flaming torch called a ‘link’ to light the way for the traveller. The origin of the word ‘link’ is uncertain, with possible derivations from a medieval Latin word for wick or from a Greek word for portable light. The term ‘link’ was used by Shakespeare, indicating that this method of coping with dark city streets had a long history.

Most people hired link boys only when they needed them, but the wealthy had servants in livery, generally young men, who could act as link boys and as bodyguards. They carried not just torches but also wooden staffs and weapons. Wealthy households installed link extinguishers outside their front doors for their servants to put out their torches once they had reached home. Hired link boys did not extinguish their torches, but moved off in search of another customer.

Extinguishing a torch

Using a link extinguisher fixed on the railing in front of a town-house

If you find a link extinguisher that is still in its original position, then that building is probably more than two centuries old, and it was most likely the home of a wealthy family.


The 2016 summer in Britain has been somewhat indifferent – very few scorching hot days, much cloud and below-average temperatures. Exactly two centuries ago, the weather was far worse. As Jane Austen died in July 1817, her very last full summer in 1816 was a wretched one, and she refers to the rain and the cold in a few of her surviving letters. ‘I begin to think it will never be fine again,’ she lamented in early July. On 1st September 1816 William Holland, the vicar of Over Stowey in Somerset, wrote in his diary: ‘The weather has continued in the same uncertain state that it has done for sometime past. Indeed properly speaking we have had no summer, for we scarce have been a week without [a] fire throughout, I have now this very day a fire in the parlour.’ For much of the year his diary had been a litany of bad weather and dashed hopes. In his rural community, he was keenly aware of the effects of the weather on the crops. The constant rain had delayed the hay harvest considerably, and two weeks earlier he had written: ‘Rainy, windy weather confined William [his son] & I within doors – nay we had a fire tho’ in the midst of August. What will become of the corn I know not, for it does not ripen.’

Flooded and frozen

This exceptional weather was not confined to south-west England, but was felt right across the northern hemisphere. In late July the Scottish newspaper the Caledonian Mercury carried reports from Europe about the unseasonable conditions:

‘The foreign papers continue to inform us of the damage done by storms of hail and rain, by lightning and thunder, in almost every part of Europe. Whole districts have been ravaged and laid waste, houses have been blown down, the labours of the husbandman destroyed, rivers have burst their banks, and inundated vast tracks [tracts]. The greatest damage seems to have been done in Germany.’

After reporting on similar events in Scotland, the same newspaper published accounts taken from English newspapers:

‘A London paper of Saturday states, that in that city and neighbourhood it had rained “more or less for sixty successive days, mostly in the evenings – frequently all night, and very often in tremendously heavy but short showers.” The rivers in consequence were full to the margins, and the hay harvest was expected to be the latest that has happened for many years.’

On the other side of the Atlantic, the weather was just as bad, particularly in the north-eastern United States, and by September it was obvious from newspaper reports that it had been a disastrous year for farmers:

‘Bedford. [Massachusetts] Sept. 12. It has rained incessantly for several days and nights past. The Juniata [river] is now higher by nearly two feet, than it was the time of the great flood in the fall of 1810. It is a most pitiable sight to see cows, sheep, fowls, bridges, fences, oats, corn, pumpkins, grass &c. &c. floating down in one common mass. Persons owning lands contiguous to streams of water, and contractors employed in building the new turnpike bridges, have, we much fear, suffered severely.’

The Newport Mercury summed up the situation in the state of Rhode Island: ‘In the summer past, we have experienced a great variety of weather, and many surprising changes. Spring, Summer and Autumn seems to have been blended together. No month has passed without frost, nor one without snow.’


This devastating freak weather in the northern hemisphere in 1816 was largely due to climate change caused by volcanic activity in 1815, but bad weather had also been experienced just over three decades earlier, which may even have been a key factor that led to the French Revolution. For several months in 1783 and 1784, a massive eruption of fissures of the Laki or Grimsvötn volcanic system in Iceland emitted vast amounts of sulphur dioxide and changed the climate considerably in northern Europe and America that particular winter, and for many years to come. In 1812, 1813 and 1814, a series of volcanic eruptions took place across the globe, including La Soufrière in the Caribbean and Mount Awu in Indonesia, Suwanosejima in Japan and Mayon in the Philippines. Then came Tambora.

On Wednesday 5th April 1815, the volcano Tambora on the Indonesian island of Sumbawa erupted with a cataclysmic explosion. Despite the intensity of the initial eruption, Tambora continued to eject lesser amounts of lava and ash over the next four days, followed by a second, even larger explosion on 10th April. In the immediate area, about 12,000 people were killed by falling rocks, showers of ash and red-hot lava, as well as pyroclastic flows – rivers of lava flowing so fast that not even modern vehicles can outrun.


Image of the crater of Tambora taken from the Space Shuttle Endeavour

in May 1992. Courtesy of NASA via Wikimedia Commons.

The loss of life on Sumbawa was just the beginning of the tragedy. The cloud of dust and ash was so thick that it blotted out the sun. As a witness in eastern Java recorded in May 1815, ‘From the 5th to the 18th of the last month the Sun was not distinctly perceived, and if his rays occasionally penetrated they appeared as observed through a thick mist.’ The blotting out of the sun in the surrounding area was hardly surprising since the Tambora eruption blew over 150 cubic kilometres [36 cubic miles] of material into the atmosphere – many times more than in the famous explosion of Krakatoa (also in Indonesia) in 1883. In fact, Tambora is the largest volcanic explosion in recorded history. The resulting cloud of debris, as well as the various gases released in the explosion, gradually thinned out and floated at the mercy of the currents in the atmosphere. It took a year for the cloud to drift to the northern hemisphere, and it gave rise to the appalling weather of 1816 and beyond.


Changes in climate continued for several years, and although the weather improved, the suffering of the people continued. It would be decades before the disastrous summer of 1816 would be scientifically explained, but it soon gathered names that passed into folklore. In America it was often called ‘Poverty Year’, ‘The Year There Was No Summer’ and ‘Eighteen Hundred and Froze to Death’, in Germany it was called ‘The Year of the Beggar’ and elsewhere in Europe, where famine and disease led to many riots, it was blamed on the wars that had just ended and so was called ‘Napoleonic Weather’. In Britain it was simply remembered as ‘The Year Without a Summer’.

Frankenstein weather

One positive effect of the volcanic ash cloud was on those visual artists who took especial note of the weather in their work, the prime example being the artist J.M.W. Turner. The cloud of volcanic dust produced dazzling sunsets and strange smoky yellow skies, which he captured in many of his paintings.

To escape the weather in Britain, Lord Byron, Percy Bysshe Shelley, his wife Mary, her sister Claire Clairmont and Byron’s doctor John Polidori travelled to Switzerland. The Napoleonic Wars had finally come to an end the year before at the Battle of Waterloo, and so the Continent was once again open. The party stayed in a villa on the shore of Lake Geneva that Byron had rented for the summer, and he became so inspired by the gloom cast by the volcanic dust in the atmosphere that he wrote the poem Darkness. It begins:

‘I had a dream, which was not all a dream.

The bright sun was extinguish’d, and the stars

Did wander darkling in the eternal space,

Rayless, and pathless, and the icy earth

Swung blind and blackening in the moonless air’

It describes a world plunged into gloom and darkness, resulting in famine, disease, conflict and eventually widespread devastation. Although the connection between the weather and volcanic eruptions would not be proven for many decades, Byron curiously mentions volcanoes in the poem:

‘Happy were those who dwelt within the eye

Of the volcanos, and their mountain torch.’

Although they had escaped various problems in England, the travellers at the villa were unable to escape the weather. Being confined indoors for days on end, Byron challenged them to each write a ghost story. Although Byron and Shelley soon gave up on theirs, John Polidori started on The Vampyre, which became the first modern vampire story. Mary Shelley persisted and finished her story there. The result was her famous novel Frankenstein, published in 1818 in (as was customary) three volumes.

Frankenstein title page

Title page of the first volume of ‘Frankenstein’

Famine and fever

For most people, Tambora would wreck their lives as the change in climate caused havoc. A succession of greatly diminished harvests led to famine and food riots, particularly in Britain and France, and epidemics took hold more easily in populations that were weakened by starvation. In Ireland, the famine led directly to a typhus epidemic in which it is estimated that up to 100,000 people died. Across Europe the situation was less clear cut. Many deaths were recorded as being due to ‘fever’ or ‘famine fever’, which were catch-all terms that covered many unidentifiable diseases. Apart from the typhus epidemic, the overall picture was one of a general worsening of health across Europe, with endemic diseases taking advantage of a weakened population. Then came news of the plague.

Bubonic plague had appeared in India in 1812 and spread rapidly to Constantinople. It then invaded eastern Europe, and by 1816 western European countries were forced to set up drastic quarantine procedures covering all Mediterranean and Adriatic ports. These measures effectively stopped the epidemic in its tracks, and only a few cases broke out in Europe, which were quickly dealt with by isolation and by burning the houses of victims.

The cholera epidemic took Europe by surprise, largely because the disease was so little understood. It had been endemic in India for some time and was largely confined to that country, but the failed harvests of 1816 triggered an epidemic that was transmitted westwards by British military operations across the north-west frontier into Afghanistan and Nepal. In this initial phase, about 10,000 British troops and hundreds of thousands of Indians died. From Afghanistan it took fifteen years for cholera to work its way into Europe, finally reaching Britain in 1831. The following year, 1832, it crossed the Atlantic to America and Canada. In its slow march across Europe and America, cholera left hundreds of thousands, possibly millions, of people dead in its wake.


In our last newsletter, we mentioned that one of the queries we often receive about our book Jack Tar is ‘How can we purchase the paperback book in the United States?’ We are pleased to say that it is now back in stock on, so buy it now while you see it! The ISBN is 9780349120348.

‘Jack Tar’ remains one of our most popular talks, though until we finish our new book on the Great Siege of Gibraltar, we are not booking any more talks. We are, though, looking forward to giving a ‘Jack Tar’ talk at the January 2017 meeting of the Jane Austen Society South-West (on the 28th). This is a very active branch of the Jane Austen Society, and it holds four conferences a year, each one lasting from 10.30am to 3.30pm, with morning coffee, buffet lunch and two talks. They are held in central Exeter (at Southernhay Hall, Dix’s Field, EX1 1QA). This gives you plenty of time to join – for further details, see their website page here (you do not have to be a member of the main Jane Austen Society to join).

We were recently alerted to a well-crafted and generous review of Jack Tar by author and historian Jonathan North. He posted the review on his interesting website that focuses on the French Revolution and Napoleonic history and where he says: ‘But, if I am honest, for me the impact of this age of change on ordinary people was always more compelling, the way in which grand events sweep people up or simply pass them by.’ Those thoughts tie in very much with Jack Tar, for which Jonathan wrote:

‘it is true to say that Jack Tar restores the all-important human dimension, by looking at the experience of life at sea, and relegating talk of mizzens and shoals to an absolute minimum … I learnt a lot, but I have to thank the authors for opening up a whole new world, rich in potential reading … That’s the nice thing about studies relying on personal accounts – they provide an entry point into a new world, and the extracts suggest what your next steps in that world might be. The account of a surgeon in the West Indies, of an admiral off Brest, or a marine in Dalmatia? Yours for the taking. Jack Tar is a great, and entertaining, service to us all.’

There is more on his website here.


The latest quarterly issue of Quarterdeck has just arrived, for September–October, always a welcome moment. Its tagline is ‘celebrating maritime literature & art’, and readers will find many books that they will want to read – from the latest ones by well-known authors to little-known gems that have been brought back into print. We are delighted to be featured on page 3, with news of the book we are writing on the Great Siege of Gibraltar.

Several pages are devoted to Julian Stockwin, whose Kydd books continue. His latest book is The Powder of Death, a new standalone novel about gunpowder being brought to England for the first time. We’ve not yet seen the novel, but it sounds fascinating as gunpowder looms large in the Gibraltar siege. Quarterdeck is published by Tall Ships Communications under the editorship of George Jepson and distributed by McBooks Press [all since changed].



Litter or letter?

In these times of sensitivity to the environment, a glass bottle washed up on the beach with a piece of paper inside is quite likely to be dumped in the nearest bin as rubbish, but it was not always so. In the 19th century such occurrences were newsworthy, and in October 1821 a report of such a bottle in a French newspaper was also published in British ones. The Graham Moore was a brig, and James Lash was her captain:

‘On the 15th ult. on the coast of St. Jean de Mont [about 60 miles north of La Rochelle], arrondissemont of Sables d’Olonne, department of La Vendée, was found a sealed bottle, containing a paper, stating, that it had been thrown from his Britannic Majesty’s ship the Graham Moore, on the 6th of July last, lat. 47d. 47m. N. long. 7d. 51m. W. Mr James Lash, an officer of the English navy, who had signed the paper, stated his intention to be to discover the direction of the currents in the Bay of Biscay.– Journal de Paris.’

In the 18th century mariners had been especially concerned with finding a reliable way of establishing the longitude of a ship at sea, but in Britain this was eclipsed by the wars with the French. Once the conflict ended in1815, there was a renewed concentration on navigation. With improvements in the accuracy of clocks and watches, longitude was less of an issue, but ocean currents – as important for sailing ships as the prevailing winds – became a focus of attention instead.

Littoral serendipity

A very simple method of studying currents was to place a message in a glass bottle, giving the date and position when it was thrown into the sea, and hope that it would remain waterproof, that it would not be smashed to pieces and that someone would pick it up from the sea shore and pass on the message. Finds of such ‘bottle papers’ did begin to be reported and studied, and in 1833 the newly established Nautical Magazine published several analyses, including one bottle paper from the West Indies:

‘A bottle paper, of which the following is a copy, has been sent home by Colonel Cockburn, Governor of Belize, H.M.S. Chanticleer, 23rd February, 1831. In lat. 15o 28′ 59″ N. long. 76 o 2′ 45″ W. At noon this paper was thrown overboard, with a view of ascertaining the current at this season of the year, between the coast of Columbia and the island of Jamaica, the ship having left Porto Bello ten days, leaving the bay of Santa Martha on Monday, 21st February, at 6 p.m. We find … that it was picked up afterwards on the 20th April, at about forty leagues from the bay of Ascension, on the coast of Yucatan.’

From these basic facts it was possible to build up a picture of the prevailing current:

‘The absolute course and distance between the above situations, is about N. 70 W. (true,) six hundred miles; and the elapsed time between the two dates allows it to have been set about ten miles and a half per day, by a superficial current in that direction. It must, however, have been influenced in its course by various circumstances, and, allowing it to have drifted a hundred miles further, by taking the contour of the coast into consideration, it might have travelled about twelve miles a day, or half a mile per hour, to the westward.’

Last words

The use of messages in bottles became so well established that in 1854 Charles Dickens included a lengthy article in his magazine Household Words, which began:

‘There is a mode of bottling up information until wanted, which occasionally perplexes those who are not behind the scenes and do not see why and wherefore the thing is done. It was about half a century ago that this “bottle department” was established; we are not without examples of its previous use, but it then became a definite system. A captain of a ship tells his whereabout; he writes on a piece of paper or parchment; he encloses this in an empty bottle; he seals this bottle, and casts it into the sea; he leaves it to the mercy of the winds and waves; and he believes that, at some time and in some place, it will be picked up, and the contents opened and read.’

Captain Becher, the editor of the Nautical Magazine, had published a chart based on the information from bottle papers, and in 1852 he drew up a second enlarged chart, which provided new information about ocean currents. It also sparked a great deal of discussion about the accuracy of the method.

Not all messages in bottles were scientific experiments, as the Household Words made clear:

‘Some of the papers in the bottles contain short but affecting narratives; the ship is stranded or water-logged; the crew can hardly reckon on another hour of life with any probability; and their captain pens a few words, in the hope that friends at home may perchance learn thereby the probable fate of the hapless ship. Many instances have occurred within the last few years, in which a bottle has been the only messenger of correct information; a vessel has been so long unheard of, that a disastrous fate seems to have been certain; but this fate is not known until a floating bottle brings news of the crew, down to nearly the last hour of their existence.’

A message of this sort was written by Major Duncan McGregor on board the Kent, bound for Calcutta, when the vessel caught fire in bad weather in the Bay of Biscay on 1st March 1825. The message read: ‘The ship the Kent Indiaman is on fire – Elizabeth, Joanna & myself commit our spirits into the hands of our blessed Redeemer  his grace enables us to be quite composed in the awful prospect of entering eternity  D McGregor  … March 1825  Bay of Biscay.’

Message in bottle 1825

Facsimile of the message written by Major McGregor

McGregor sealed the message in a bottle, but fortunately another ship came to the rescue before the Kent blew up. Of 641 people on board, 560 were taken off safely, including Major McGregor and the women mentioned in the message. The bottle with the message had been left in his cabin and survived the explosion. Approximately 19 months later, it was found on a beach on Barbados.

Bottles come in from the cold

Bottles were also useful for messages from explorers. Without even a radio, explorers were cut off for months or even years, so the time taken for a bottle to reach civilization was the fastest communication available, as the Household Words article pointed out:

‘The bottle-papers have given us more information concerning the progress of the many recent Arctic expeditions than would be supposed by persons who have only glanced cursorily at the matter. Captain Bird threw overboard a cask containing papers, when on board the Investigator in eighteen hundred and forty-eight. It was picked up by the Prince of Wales, Hull whaler, and afforded to the Admiralty evidence of the position of the Enterprise and Investigator on a particular day. From the same ship, but when under the command of Captain M’Clure … a bottle was thrown out while she was voyaging down the Atlantic towards the Behring’s Strait route, in February eighteen hundred and fifty. The bottle floated three thousand six hundred miles, in two hundred and six days.’

From literature to litter

Towards the end of the 19th century the study of oceans, including their currents, became more scientific, with expeditions set up specifically for that purpose, and during the 20th century, with the benefit of much more efficient communications and mapping instruments, oceanography became a distinct science. Now the serious role of messages in bottles has long been superseded and forgotten, and bottles washed up on the beach are just regarded as rubbish to be disposed of.